It is sometimes said that if you want to spoil a prayer meeting, start with a Bible study on prayer. This probably says more about the quality of the study but perhaps it is also true that when we talk about prayer, we run the risk of discouraging ourselves. Probably, of all things in your Christian life, your praying is the one that leaves you most discouraged. For example; stand up now anyone who thinks their prayer life is just fine or stand up the congregation that is completely satisfied with their prayer meetings… So now we are all sitting comfortably, let’s look at some things that should encourage us to pray.
There are many examples of praying people and praying communities in the Bible that are helpful but I think it is our Lord’s own teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15 that is particularly helpful.
Jesus assumes his followers will be people who pray. It’s, ‘And when you pray’ (v.5) and not ‘if you pray’. One of the hallmarks of the authentic believer is that they pray. It was the first characteristic about Paul that God singled out when he told Ananias to go and find him, pointing out, ‘he is praying’ (Acts 9:1). At the same time, as praying people we want to get it right. In Luke 11:1 Jesus’ teaching on prayer is in response to the request, ‘Teach us to pray’. We need Christ to teach us to pray.
So Jesus begins by warning us about two kinds of praying that are counterfeit and that we are to have nothing to do with. First there is the praying of ‘hypocrites’. It seems with reference to ‘standing in the synagogues and on the street corners’ (v.5) Jesus is criticising the Pharisees, though probably not exclusively. But Jesus’ message is clear; this is not how his followers are to pray. The problem with this kind of praying is it is designed to impress people at the expense of engaging God. Hypocrites pray, ‘to be seen by men’ and that’s the extent of their praying. It is a performance for others and Jesus’ comment on this is devastating, ‘They have received their reward in full’ (v.5). That is, their ‘praying’ is for everyone but God – they are ‘praying to the gallery’. Instead we are to pray with the focus completely on God and no one else.
When you pray, regardless of whether it is on your own or with others, your focus must be on God and God alone. This should be liberating, stripping away the crippling fear of ‘What will people think of me?’. Self-consciousness should never be the issue with real prayer. Instead everything should be about God and his reaction to you. Try to forget yourself next time you pray with others and focus entirely on God. It will be a liberating experience and may take you to places in prayer that you have never been before.
Next Jesus warns about the style of praying that is popular among ‘pagans’ (v.7),in particular, ‘prayer’ that is characterised by length. He is scathing as he calls this praying ‘babbling’ (v.7). The problem with pagan prayer was that it believed their gods could be impressed by the style and length of a person’s prayer. The longer you prayed, the more likely you were to be heard. Jesus shows us there is no place for this style of praying among his people, with the reminder that we are praying to a Father who, ‘knows what you need before you ask him’ (v.8). Authentic prayer does not set out to impress God or, it seems, argue the case in great and extended detail. The point is clear: you are praying to One who knows all about you and your needs. Nothing needs to be explained to him or pointed out to him; he understands perfectly.
Understood correctly, this too is liberating, stripping away the hindrance of ‘I can’t find the right words’ or ‘I can’t seem to express what is on my heart’. Don’t worry about this – God understands perfectly and is incapable of misunderstanding anything you may ever say to him. Similarly this eases the concern of, ‘What if I dry up or run out of words?’ Don’t worry about this; God is not impressed by the length of a prayer. What he wants is the cry of your heart. So be confident about this as you pray.
Having dealt with these negatives, Jesus goes on to show that true prayer always begins with the wonderful words, ‘Our Father’. Real prayer is not about engaging with a concept or doctrine; it is not about doing something out of tradition or guilt. Instead it is about talking to One who is and insists on being addressed as ‘our Father’. If this tells us anything it stresses that true prayer rests on our relationship with God as our Father. We don’t pray to a stranger but pray to ‘our Father who is in heaven – One who knows us, understands us, loves us and cares for us – profoundly. Ultimately the cross has achieved for us the privilege to say ‘our Father’.
Understanding this should liberate our praying from stiff formalism. It should bring naturalness as we talk to God. It should also help the times when we feel unfit to pray. What father turns away his children when they are in distress or need? Or what father coldly critiques the way his child calls out to him in the night for help? Certainly not our heavenly Father; he delights in the praying of his people.
Prayer is, at its most basic, talking to God and we are invited to talk to him in the way that is most natural for us, — in the same way a child talks to a father. This is both mind blowing and deeply encouraging. We may talk in the most natural way and with complete confidence to God, who has made, sustains and orders every atom in the cosmos, he same One who has raised up and brought down whole empires to fulfil his purposes. There is no one greater than your heavenly Father, in all of heaven or earth and he invites you, as one of his dearly loved children, to talk to him.
What an overwhelmingly glorious thing prayer is!